U.S. FOREST SERVICE MISUSES SCIENCE
TO LOG SPOTTED OWL HABITAT IN SIERRA NEVADA
John Muir Project Sheds Light on Misleading Forest Service Brochure
By René Voss, Public Policy Director
John Muir Project
September 15, 2004
Cedar Ridge, CA - In recent months it has become clear to what extent
the Bush Administration is willing to mislead the public so it can
increase logging in the Sierra Nevada.
1909 photograph with implied pre-settlement forest conditions.
(Click picture for high resolution image)
1909 photograph of actual pre-settlement forest conditions
(Click picture for high resolution image)
A number of Forest Service biologists have now come out in disagreement with
statements in a Forest Service brochure, titled "Forests with a Future," which
claims that forest fires are a serious threat to California spotted owls.
Biologists inside and outside the agency have confirmed that at least 7 of
18 owl sites which the agency claims were destroyed by fire are green, recovering
and are occupied by owls.
“They are not lost. We had owl surveys conducted after the
burn and were able to put owls at each one,” said Gary Rotta,
a biologist for the Plumas National Forest.
"The flier is totally bogus," said Michael Gertsch, a
Forest Service wildlife biologist since 1976. Last year, nearing
the end of the Administration's revision of the Sierra Nevada forest
plan, Gertsch was removed from the team that wrote the plan after
repeatedly complaining about the mischaracterization that owl sites,
normally old growth forests, were being destroyed by wildfires. A
statement he wrote for the plan that puts wildfires in perspective
was dropped from the final version of the plan. "It was dropped
because the conclusion of my analysis was that fire appears to be
more of a maintenance mechanism than a destructive force for owl
habitat," said Gertsch.
"The only reason the revisions were made was to allow logging
of bigger trees,” said Chad Hanson, director of the John Muir
Project (JMP). “It was a gift to the timber industry." JMP
has appealed the plan.
"They are using concerns over the owl and concerns about loss
of habitat as justification to do more logging of the habitat," said
Monica Bond, a biologist who surveyed owls for the Forest Service
at the Eldorado and Tahoe national forests and now works for the
Center for Biological Diversity.
After incorporating the best science accumulated over 10 years,
the Clinton Forest Service revised the Sierra Nevada forest plan
and prohibited logging of most old growth forest.
However, using a claim of increased fire dangers as a reason, the
agency under the Bush administration revised the plan earlier this
year to allow for a tripling of logging levels, primarily targeted
at larger trees.
But the claims about burned owl habitat aren't the only misleading
items in the now infamous brochure.
Chad Hanson broke the story about misleading photographs that the
Forest Service used in this same brochure titled "Forest with
a Future." The AP story about these misleading photos was published
in April in the L.A. Times and dozens of other papers across the
The brochure uses a series of photographs from 1909 to 1979 of a
forest area as an illustration of why we need more logging in the
Sierra Nevadas to prevent wildfires. The 1909 photo (see photo on
left) shows an open parklike forest with a few large trees, spaced
However, the series of photographs weren't taken anywhere near the
Sierra Nevada, nor did the Forest Service provide accurate description
of their context.
"I was looking at the picture and I thought it looked awfully
familiar," said Chad Hanson. "I started looking around
and sure enough, the industry has used it before in Montana. It's
from the Bitterroot Valley."
"If you look closely, you can see huge slash piles and stumps
in the background,” he said. “They give the impression
this represents natural, pre-settlement conditions, but the picture
was taken after logging had occurred and most of the trees had been
The photo has been used a number of times in the past to justify more logging
in Western forests outside of Montana and even in the Pacific Northwest. "I
can’t believe they are still doing this," said Timothy Ingalsbee,
director of the Western Fire Ecology Center in Eugene, Ore. He said the Forest
Service published the same sequence of photos in a 1998 pamphlet “and
misrepresented it to make it seem like it came from the forest just above Ashland,
Oregon,” he said.
In contrast, a 1909 photo not included in the brochure from near
Lake Como in the Bitterroot National Forest near Hamilton, Montana
shows true unlogged pre-settlement conditions with deep shade and
a thick understory (see photo on right).
The Forest Service hired a private public relations firm and spent
$23,000 on 15,000 of the Sierra Nevada "Forest with a Future" brochures.
Congressional critics of the brochure, Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA) and
Nick Rahall (D-W.V.), have asked the inspector general to investigate
whether the Forest Service violated any laws by spending $90,000
for the services of One World Communications, Inc. of San Francisco.
Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), the Democrat's second-ranking member in
the U.S. Senate called the photos "misleading," and continued
by saying people “are smart enough to make up their own minds
when presented with accurate facts, but this approach is disingenuous.”
The Forest Service defends its use of the brochures, and claims
that the photos and information were not meant to mislead. “Our
goal here was to...increase the clarity and understandability of
our message,” spokesman Matt Mathes of the Forest Service said. “We
needed to be accurate but not necessarily precise to the 99th degree.” The
brochure is still being used and can be viewed at: http://www.fs.fed.us/r5/forestsfuture/pdfs/protecting.pdf (1.7